For the First time since 2019, after a canceled tournament and a covid infused season, March Madness will be played in front of a full crowd. In the waning stages of the regular season, it is safe to say that this year has been full of madness. We’ve seen multiple preseason top 25 teams go from potential national championship contenders to possibly missing the tournament. We saw Auburn, a team that started the season ranked in the bottom end of the top 25, go on a 19-game winning streak and develop Jabari Smith Jr., this year’s potential first overall pick.
With selection Sunday coming up, let’s take a look at the contenders as well as the potential early exits and Cinderellas in this year’s tournaments.
Below are a couple of stats I will be using to defend my points and the meaning behind them.
What is a quad one win?
A quad 1 victory is when a team wins a home game against a top 30 team (According to the RPI), wins against a top 50 team in a neutral site game, or wins an away game against a top 75 team.
What are adjusted efficiency stats?
Kenpom.com measures stats based on a team’s performance throughout the year, taking into account things like strength of schedule. The efficiency is how many points a team scores per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency) compared to how many points their opponents score per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency). These are then weighted by strength of schedule.
March Madness is known best for having Cinderella stories every year. Most often, we see some team make a deep run in the tournament that few people expected. Last year, it was UCLA: an 11 seed, needing to win a play-in game that made a run to the Final Four. In 2018, we saw Loyola Chicago, a team who made a miraculous run to the Final Four, taking town multiple teams on buzzer-beaters or last-second go-ahead shots. Finding a mid-major school or low seeded team that might be able to make a long run in March is by no means easy, but let’s give it a try.
South Dakota State (Summit Leauge)
Sitting at 27-4 with an undefeated conference record, the Jackrabbits have pulled off a fantastic season to date and possess the traits needed to make a deep run this March. Coach Eric Henderson’s offense ranks 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Even more impressive, the Jackrabbits are 2nd in points per game, averaging 87.2, and are first in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 52.7% from the field. South Dakota State is also first in 3 point percentage, shooting 45.07% from behind the arc. Furthermore, the Jack Rabbits have three scorers who regularly put up 15 points per game. A team with this kind of offensive strength is extremely dangerous in March. They do have some flaws, as the Jackrabbits are ranked 215th in adjusted defensive efficiency, but South Dakota State is still one of my favorites to make a deep run this year in March.
Murray State (Ohio Valley)
Led by the three-headed snake of KJ Williams, Tevin Brown, and Justice Hill, the Racers sit at the top of the Ohio Valley Conference with a 28-2 record, undefeated in conference play. One of those losses comes to Auburn, in a game that Murray State was able to stay in for a while. With a fantastic record and great offensive production, the Racers are my favorite out of all these schools to make a run deep in the tournament. Similar to the 2018 Final Four Cinderellas of Loyala Chicago, Murray State shoots the three well and has a starting lineup in which all five starters can have elite scoring night any night. Both schools were also very balanced on both offense and defense and ended the regular season on a hot streak. Murray State is capable of making a run to the Final Four and has all the traits needed for a school to make a deep run in March.
Colorado State (Mountain West)
In a crowded Mountain West, David Roddy and Colorado State have had a fantastic season. The Rams have won their last eight and are getting hot at the right time, currently holding a 22-4 record. The Rams have one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball, with David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, a duo averaging 35 points per game in an extremely competitive Mountain West conference: one of the most underrated in basketball. Colorado State is tied at 10th in quad 1 wins with four, showing they can beat tournament-level teams like Saint Mary’s, Wyoming, Creighton, and San Diego State. As of now, I believe Colorado State is the best team coming out of the Mountain West and is on the level of Murray State as a threat for a deep run this March.
San Diego State (Mountain West)
Currently holding a 19-7 record, the Aztecs are currently a nine seed according to CBS bracketology. In an extremely competitive Mountain West conference that has had great scorers this year like David Roddy and Hunter Maldonado, San Diego State has still managed to be the best defensive team in all of college basketball. The Aztecs are ranked as the best defensive team in the nation according to Kenpom, ranked 1st in adjusted defensive efficiency. Opponents average a minuscule 58.2 points per game against San Diego State, putting The Aztecs 2nd in the nation in opponent’s points per game. However, San Diego State carries an offensive liability, as the Aztecs only have one double-digit scorer. The lack of offense worries me, but I believe that the Aztecs could pull off an upset when the tournament comes.
Potential Early exits
Providence (Big East)
Currently ranked 9th in the AP poll, the Providence Friars have been walking on a tightrope this whole year. With a 24-4 record and a top 10 team, some may consider the Friars a championship contender. They’re not. The Friars consistently play down to competition and allow horrible teams to compete with them, keeping every game tight. Only winning by one in overtime against 14-17 Butler, only winning by three in overtime against 15-14 Depaul, and only beating the 16-12 St John’s by four, the list goes on. nine of the 11 games the Friars have played in since January 23rd have had a final score within single digits, 5 of them ending within one score. The Friars do have some impressive wins early in the season, specifically against Wisconsin, but one of the most important traits in looking at a tournament team is how they play towards the conference tournament. The Friars are ranked 28th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 63rd in defensive efficiency, showing how mediocre they are. Being in all these close games against sub-par teams is going to catch up to Providence at some point. Consistently narrowly escaping games like these shows that in a first-round matchup, they could easily be taken down by a team much better than the teams they slipped by earlier in the season.
USC (Pac 12)
At one point a top-five team in the country, the USC Trojans have fallen off of a cliff since reaching that season-high. Similar to Providence, the Trojans are unimpressively low in Kenpom rankings and consistently played close games with bad teams. Ranked 35th and 56th in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, the Trojans are not a very efficient team, especially for being ranked 16th in the AP poll. The performance that confirmed USC as an early exit for me was when it took two overtimes for the Trojans to beat Oregon State, a 3-25 team who is arguably the worst team out of all of the Power 6 conferences. Performances like these, near the tournament, are extremely worrying and signs of an early exit from March. USC had a chance for a big win at home against the number two team in the country, Arizona. On their home court, USC was already trailing by 24 at the half and ended up losing by 20. With the performance we’ve seen from the Trojans as of late, they are a team I see getting upset early in the tournament.
Gonzaga (West Coast Conference)
With a 24-3 record, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a front runner for the national championship this year. Gonzaga has been fantastic offensively and defensively, ranked 2nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 6th in adjusted defensive efficiency. With talent all over the place and all 5 starters averaging double-digit points per game, Gonzaga has been able to score with ease. There is no shortage of experience on the Bulldogs roster, including senior Andrew Nembhard, a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the best point guard in the nation. The Zags return 2nd team all American Drew Timme and brought in Chet Holmgren, a projected top 3 pick in this year’s draft, showing how stacked this team is top to bottom. Because of this dominant frontcourt, the Zags have been fantastic defensively, currently 4th in the nation averaging 6 blocks per game. The zags have been blowing out conference competition, only 1 game being within 15 points. Gonzaga has an easier conference but has been able to beat elite teams early this year, being ranked 2nd in quad one wins with 7. Wins against Texas Tech, UCLA, and Texas show how good the Zags really are. All year it has been evident that Gonzaga has the coaching, talent, and experience to win a national championship on April 3rd in New Orleans.
In Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season coaching Duke basketball, it would be only fitting for him to go out with a bang and get one final ring. With the star power and NBA prospects scattered all over the Blue Devils roster, a championship is not out of reach by any means. Holding a 26-4 record, one of those wins coming against Gonzaga, Duke has proved they are capable of beating anyone. Similar to the Zags, Duke is stacked with talent from top to bottom. The Blue Devils have multiple star players in Paolo Banchero, a projected top 3 draft pick, and AJ Griffin, a projected lottery pick. With so many talented players from top to bottom, the Blue Devils have a very well-rounded team. Defensively, Mark Williams has been a rock in the paint for the Blue Devils, 10th in the nation with 2.9 blocks per game. The backcourt has been veryolid with Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels, two projected top 40 picks who average a combined 25 points and 3 steals per game. The Blue Devils are an extremely clean team, currently 2nd in the nation with a 1.67 assist to turnover ratio which will be extremely important in March when teams seem to get sloppy with the ball. With a 5-1 quad 1 record and consistently blowing out a majority of ACC opponents, the Blue Devils have the guys needed to make one final run to the national championship with Coach K.
Baylor (Big 12)
Looking to win back-to-back championships, Baylor has shown that they haven’t taken much of a step back since last year. The Bears started the season with the longest undefeated streak in the nation, winning their first 15 games until falling at home to Texas Tech. Playing in arguably the most talented conference in the nation, Baylor has looked better than anyone, holding a 14-4 conference record as well as leading the nation with 10 quad 1 wins. The Bears have 3 double-digit scorers and will be able to put up big points this March. With an 11-4 quad 1 record, Baylor has shown that they can beat any team when they are playing at their highest level. The Bears have been getting hot at the right time, riding a 5-game winning streak, including wins against 5th ranked Kansas, as well as tournament teams TCU and Texas. Even with key players from last year like Davion Mitchell declaring for the draft, Baylor has still brought back multiple players from last year’s tournament run. The Bears return an experienced backcourt of Arizona transfer James Akinjo and Adam Flagler, two guards who have been able to run an extremely efficient offense. Defensively, Matthew Mayer, Kendall Brown, and Flo Thamba have all been extremely solid, helping Baylor stand at 15 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Overall, Baylor is an extremely well-rounded team that is built to go back-to-back this March.
Arizona (PAC 12)
Led by projected lottery pick and Jerry West award finalist Bennedict Mathurin, The Arizona Wildcats are one of the best teams in the nation this year. Even with Mathurin being a huge part of Arizona’s squad, there are 3 other double-digit scorers distributing scoring evenly among the team. Arizona leads the nation in team assists and ranked in the top 15 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Big men Christian Koloko (6’11) and Azuolas Tubelis (7’1), have helped anchor the Wildcat’s defense, averaging a combined 3.6 blocks and 13.6 rebounds per game. Holding one of the top records in the nation at 28-3, Arizona has a lineup full of playmakers that have shown they are a contender this March. All of Arizona’s 3 losses come in quad 1 play, 2 of them coming against Tennessee and UCLA, both away games against teams projected to be 4 seeds or higher. Arizona holds wins over solid tournament teams, including Wyoming, Michigan, Illinois, and UCLA. With such a dominant resume and NBA-level talent scattered across the roster, Arizona has all the tools they need to bring a championship home to Tucson.
Looking to win their first national championship since 2012, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats have proven to be a contender this year. The season did not start great for Kentucky, as they suffered a 20-point blowout loss to Duke early on, but the nation’s leading rebounder, Oscar Tshiebwe, and projected lottery pick TyTy Washington have been able to turn the ship and lead Kentucky to a 25-6 record. With arguably the best backcourt in the nation, TyTy Washington and Savior Wheeler have been about to facilitate a dominant Kentucky offense. Currently sitting at 3rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, currently averaging 80.1 points per game. Kentucky has been a great 3-point shooting team, mainly due to Kellan Grady, a 6’6 forward averaging 46% from behind the arc. With all 5 starters averaging 10 points or more per game, and arguably the best player in the nation and current front runner for Naismith Player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky is a threat to knock off anyone in the nation.